Planes Collide Over Letchworth
A major event that many wartime residents of Letchworth remember, was the collision of two American bombers close to the town.
By John Sanderson
There are several eyewitness accounts of this.
‘Mummy those aeroplanes are funny’
“About 9am I was busy in my kitchen with my five year old son Jimmy when a formation of American bombers flew over. Jimmy went out to look and watch. He came rushing back saying ‘Mummy these aeroplanes are funny and by then I realised something was the matter because the drone of the planes changed. I went out at once and I saw that two planes were in trouble and were coming down. I got hold of my little boy, looked up again and by this time the planes were on fire and were spiralling down. I dumped my boy Into a dip by the hedge and lay on top of him for protection. It seemed an eternity till I heard the thump of the planes landing on the ground. One landed just behind our houses in the wood, where it exploded, uprooting trees and shattering them like matches. Luckily only a few branches and lumps of earth came our way but doors and windows were blown and the roof of our house was damaged. The other plane landed further up the lane, killing one woman and a child, which frightened my husband, who was working a tractor in a field nearby. He came rushing home glad to find us alive. We were very shaken for a long time, and we could not forget the sight of the crew, and their belongings, scattered around the fields.”
They were flying too close together
“Not such a nice memory was when the Americans were flying in their Flying Fortresses for their daylight raids into Germany later on in the war. It was a lovely bright morning and I was just wheeling my bicycle out of the shed to go to work. On looking up I saw the menacing formation of these enormous aircraft and noted to myself that they were flying far too close together, and how right I was. As I watched, two of them collided in mid-air and the memory of these poor crew members dropping to earth over Weston will live with me to my dying day. The smell of the collision pervaded the whole area.”
‘Mesmerised by the sight, I stood watching’
“One morning during the war I had taken my bicycle from the shed and was pushing it to the road outside. I was a bright day and I heard the now familiar drone of Flying Fortresses overhead. I gazed at them wondering about the American lads who were on the way to drop bombs on Germany in daylight. Had any of them been at the lcknield Halls last Saturday? Had I met any of them when I was driven in an American truck, together with other members of the WVS to the American base at Bassingbourn? British bombers rained bombs during the nights and Americans during the day. Standing there I thought of the German people who were about to suffer the deadly onslaught. I recall wondering why they flew in such tight formations as, from where I stood, it looked as thought they were wing tip to wing tip. The aircraft circled and reformed into a still tighter formation. They made an ominous pattern of destruction against the once peaceful, clear morning sky. I shivered with thoughts of the thousands of men, women and children who would see this monster flinging death at them from the skies on that lovely morning. The whole force took on the aspect of a mammoth death-dealing machine. Each bomber trailed a vapour wake like a bravely scribed gesture of defiance across the sky, which stitched them together into some sort of mechanical cohesion. There was some sort of beauty there, I thought, if the reason for it was divorced from the appearance. The powerful throb of the engines filled the skies. Mesmerised by the sight I stood watching. What followed next I will never forget as long as I live. The centre of that precise formation suddenly turned to chaos. Small unidentifiable particles began to spiral slowly downward like leaves from autumn trees. Then they gathered momentum and plummeted. My horrified gaze returned to the formation. Two of the planes were disintegrating as if some power above had thrown them about like a child with a toy, remorselessly. There was a horrible, acrid smell. There appeared to be puppets hanging from useless strings, lifesaving parachutes alight above them. Some of the chutes did open. The wreckage of two of the once mighty Fortresses spiralled to the ground, the thumps being heard all over the district. I do understand that some of the GIs at the base planted snowdrop bulbs in Weston Woods as a memorial to those who died on that bright morning.”
I heard reather than saw the actual colision
“I think it was the Autumn of’ 1944, though I am not absolutely certain. On a clear sunny Saturday morning I set out from my home in The Crescent to collect my sister’s repaired cycle from Aldridge’s Cycle Shop in The Wynd, Letchworth. Heavily laden Flying Fortresses were climbing from their East Anglian bases end flying westwards, well spread out at this point and heading for an assembly point where they would form up into a huge combat box formation before setting course for their European target. It was a little before 9 o’clock in the morning when I stood waiting for the cycle shop, to open. Queues had formed in Leys Avenue at Nott’s the bakers and at the fruit and vegetable shop at the top of The Wynd. I heard rather than saw the actual collision of the two Fortresses One pilot must have opened his engine throttles wide as the sudden unusual roar made me look up. In the direction of Weston, flaming wreckage was beginning to fall. One Fortress was slowly spiralling down in a flat spin, the right way up, but it had lost its tailplane and fuselage just aft of the wings. The wing outermost of the spiral was all alight and as the wreckage descended it left a corkscrew of flames behind it. Bombs, which had fallen out of the fully laden planes detonated when they hit the ground, shaking the earth and the shop windows around me. Two parachutes deployed fully below and to the side of the main piece of falling wreckage As the spiralling bomber passed the parachutes the canopies ignited, no doubt because the whole area must have been full of petrol vapours from the full tanks of the outgoing planes. As the flames consumed the parachute canopies the two men fell with the rigging lines and what was left of their flaming canopies streaming out behind them. Everyone just stood helpless. The spiralling wreckage had passed from my view behind the shops in Leys Avenue but so slowly was it falling I had time to run to the top of The Wynd, to Leys Avenue, to see the last of its fall. People in the queues were crying. I walked back to the cycle shop, collected my sister’s bicycle and. went home. I was not aware of any significant part of the other bomber falling, nor do I know why these planes collided on such a clear day and at a time when they were not in close formation. I can vividly remember the collision of the two Bombers at Weston. I can also remember how horrified the Home Guard were when they had to go and help clear the wreckage. Many of them were so shocked but to compensate for that I think the Americans gave them the first bacon and eggs some of them had had for a long time. “
A most terrible sight for the people in the food queues
“One of the worst things to happen, of course, was the collision of the American bombers, within the sight of Leys Avenue. On Saturday, 26th August 1944 these American bombers, I have since found out from the United States Air Force were on their way to bomb the U-Boat pens in Brest, France. One of them fell on another within sight of Leys Avenue and they both exploded. Men on parachutes that had escaped from the first bomber had their parachutes all frizzled up and they fell to the ground and it was a most terrible sight for the people in the food queues in Leys Avenue. I didn’t see it myself although I heard all the explosions.
It was rumoured that a young woman and her child who had been evacuated to Weston village were killed either by wreckage or bombs from this crash. ”